Arnold Kling  

Douglas Rushkoff on the Inauguration Event

Make it a Crime... Me in the Chronicle of High...

Some excerpts from his 1999 book, Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" say. Chapter three is called "Spectacle."

p. 113:

Like so many other venues for mass communication, today's sports spectacles are desperately looking for new ways to appeal...A well-designed spectacle has the power to unify tens of thousands of different people into a single, cheering mass. However the energy of the mob may have been directed in the past--toward particular political, religious, or cultural ideologies--today an afternoon at the Meadowlands has been fine-tuned to elicit our allegiance to the corporations sponsoring the game.

That is, he predicts that large corporations will try to use the inauguration as an opportunity to strengthen their brand identity.

p. 118-119:

When we are part of a crowd, we are free to experience heightened levels of emotion that just aren't possible for smaller groups. Relieved of our responsibility to make considered judgments, we can allow ourselves to be swept away by the enthusiasm of the greater body. Whatever the crowd has in common--yet may not be free to express in daily life--is amplified by the intensity of the spectacle and the protection that the anonymity of the mob affords...

Throughout history, nations and their leaders have used this sense of mass complicity and celebration to unite their constituencies, especially against foreign threats.

p. 123:

we are brought into unfamiliar emotional territory. We feel alive as never before, and strangely honest--as if in our daily lives we have been living a lie. We may shed tears of joy or sadness, but underlying these tears is a sense of rage at not having been allowed to express these feelings all along, which magnifies the rage even more...Because spectacle is capable of inspiring dormant rage, it is a powerful medium for delivering rhetoric, even in the service of racist ideologies...Adolf Hitler and his propaganda chief Paul Joseph Goebbels were masters of the political pageant.

p. 124:

Hitler chose to conduct his annual rallies ata Zeppelin field...But by 1934, as he began to gear up his supporters for global conquest, he enlisted the genius of architect Albert Speer to build a correspondingly more inspirational stage set.

For emotional, religious, and even poiltical effect, Speer commandeered 130 antiaircraft searchlights and spaced them at 40-foot intervals around a giant field...The immense rays of light rose more than 20,000 feet before diffusing into the heavens...

Speer's intentions were to overwhelm rationality with grandeur and to mask naked rhetoric with emotion. His theatrics worked so well that the architect found himself drawn into the spell. He reported in his autobiography that he remembered attending the rallies and admiring Hitler's speeches. But on rereading them years later, Speer claims he had no idea what it was that he had admired: "I found it incomprehensible that these tirades should once have impressed me so profoundly. What had done it?"

p. 125

Think of any great spectacle as having three main acts. First, unify the crowd; second, stoke their passion; and third, speak as God or Nature...

The Nuremberg rallies began with unifying rituals before Hitler ever took the stage. Men representing various local and competing groups entered separately holding flags, then marched together with Rockette-like precision into huge revolving swastikas...It's the same technique used today in the videos that precede every NBA basketball game...

Hitler began with the simplest of commonalities: They all were men. He told them how "the man's world is the State" and the "woman's world is her husband, her family, her children, and her house."

p. 126-127:

While individual tales often are told during spectacle gatherings, the speaker always raises his rhetoric to more totemic and universal themes near the climax. As he does so, he becomes a lightning rod for the entire group's righteous indignation...In Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 documentary about the Nuremberg rallies, Triumph of the Will, Hitler walks a tremendous gauntlet, apparently mourning the deaths of some soldiers in coffins...Then Riefenstahl cuts to where Hitler is looking--not at the wreath or the funeral pyre at all, but at the giant stone swastika above it. An attack against a symobl is more spectacular than one against human beings. It is universal.

At precisely the moment that the crowd makes the leap from personal to universal rage, the speaker can embark on his third and most difficult task: presenting himself as the voice of God...Hitler used religious phraseology to cast himself in a messianic role: "How could we not feel once again at this hour the miracle that brought us together!...Not everyone of you sees me, and I do not see every one of you. But I feel you, and you feel me!...It is a wonderful thing to be your Fuhrer."

At the end of nearly every inspirational rally, the audience is entreated to take a collective oath. In the midst of a crowd of thousands of brethren, we are to pledge our support. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to rationally consider what we are doing. Hitler went so far as to threaten his followers with punishment for noncompliance...

p. 145-146:

I don't mean to imply that every spectacle is necessarily coercive in its intent or its effect. But spectacles do function to suspend rational processes in favor of emotional ones. The intellect is neutralized, along with its ability to protect us from hateful or illogical rhetoric. We are made vulnerable. Maybe our only choice is to understand the intentions of a spectacle's organizers before we attend.

...spectacle can offer us rare access to the subconscious as well as the mythic sides of our individual and collective experience. But it grants this same access to whoever might be hoping to engineer our sentiments toward his own ends. Revel at your own risk.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (7 to date)
Floccina writes:

Yeah, it is like those guys at football games who verbally attack the referees and opposing players like a win for their team is oh so important. To me they are an odd breed.

fundamentalist writes:

Interesting perspective on the inauguration, and I agree. In addition, I think people desperately want to believe that someone exists who is smarter, wiser and more powerful than the rest of us who can fix intractable problems. Some scientists search for ET believing that we need a superior civilization to show us how to survive. A few people trust in God, but most put their faith in the head of the state, which is why Mises called it state worship and a form of idolatry. The pomp and ceremony attached to the office reinforces that belief.

Socialism teaches that we can end war, poverty, inequality and crime as well as perfect humanity if we just give the state enough power, because those in government are the more intelligent beings who can save us. We can create heaven on earth. But as Hayek has warned, such hubris leads to serfdom and has led to the deaths of hundreds of millions while making no progress toward improving the human condition.

Of course, many Christians like me believe that Christ will return one day and fix everything, but until then we’re pretty much on our own. God lets mankind have its way and intervenes only on rare occasions (that’s why they’re called miracles). The wisdom in capitalism has improved the lives of millions, although not most people on the planet. For many people that isn’t good enough. They insist on perfection and will destroy the good that capitalism has done in order to achieve perfection where perfection is impossible.

Greg writes:

I appreciate the insights on spectacle, which go back all the way to the Roman bread and circuses. However, I find it interesting that nowhere do you draw any distinction between the Nuremberg rallies and the US presidential inauguration. This strikes me as a bit hyperbolic. Wouldn't it be more interesting to do a little comparing and contrasting?

The US system of government certainly has its flaws, but overall I would say it's been a positive force in the world. Can spectacle be used to inspire people to protect freedom rather than to bow to totalitarianism? Can it be used to stoke the political will to enact positive changes? I think so. That was certainly the case with the founding of the US, the abolition of slavery, and Martin Luther King's speeches. Are we to lump King together with Hitler because both used spectacle? A little more nuance, please.

rpl writes:


I agree that the use of the Third Reich in the examples smacks a little of Godwin's Law in action. I think the intent was to illustrate that spectacle is so powerful that it can be used to beguile people into going along even with ideas that with just a moment's sober reflection everyone (hopefully) would find abhorrent.

To use a nerdly analogy, when you participate in a spectacle you are giving the organizers superuser access to your emotions. Are you sure you trust them not to use it to install a rootkit?

Greg writes:


I agree that it's important to hold onto our skepticism in the face of spectacle in general.

On further reflection, however, I think a more general variation on Godwin's Law is a common problem with many libertarian arguments. In practice, they often go like this:

1. Stalin (insert govt action here, e.g., built highways)
2. Eisenhower (same govt action)
3. Eisenhower = Stalin!!!
4. How dare they spend my money on infrastructure? Coercion!

I will of course grant that many leftists go down exactly the same road in mirror image.

Maniel writes:

I take a more benign view of the event, that it is intended to raise trial balloons and to give us a sense of what the new leader of our government is about to propose. In that regard, I have (naively perhaps) analyzed several passages from the text (at I offer a couple below.

“We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished.” President Barack Obama

To the cold, hard observer, the jury is not only out but has just begun deliberation on the president’s points. Societies of great spirit, education, and culture, such as China and India, are finally emerging as economic forces capable of offering their citizens a better life, but over the years, the political and economic structures of these nations have compromised the efforts of very productive people; immigrants to the USA from China and India have been among the most successful of America’s entrepreneurs. At present, our citizens bear the heavy burdens of local, state, and federal overspending. More ominous yet, an even heavier burden promises to fall on our children as the nation’s debts come due. It is difficult to foresee our own economy charging ahead unless these burdens can be lightened.

“The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.” President Barack Obama

When government decides for others what will be built, circumventing the market, there is only one guarantee, namely, that the money and resources must come from the private sector. In other words, there will be a cost. With no guarantee from the market that there will be a return – that the goods and services provided will be in demand – there is very little chance that we can avoid adding to our already considerable public spending and debt burdens. Who will decide the winners and losers in this “bold and swift” action? Will you be in the right place at the right time?

“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” President Barack Obama

Please count me a “cynic.” But my cynicism arises from my faith in the validity of the economic principles and axioms I have put forth in earlier posts (of my own blog) rather from any political ideology (other than a faith in our Constitution).

George writes:

I don't follow sports -- until today, for example, I was hazy about when Superbowl Sunday is this year.

But suddenly I'm awfully, incredibly glad so much of the nation goes in for spectacle of the professional sports variety, and identifies so strongly with the fortunes of their home teams.

Can you imagine all that unthinking passion poured into the political realm? It would be a disaster.

Maybe the key to political stability in the developing world is promoting year-round professional sports there.

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